Ambulatory Blood Pressure Checkups versus Clinic Blood Pressures

General internists and family practitioners have very little equipment to use in diagnosing our patients other than a light, a reflex hammer, a stethoscope, an EKG machine, a spirometer (to test breathing) and a pulse oximeter. Some offices still have an x- ray suite today but that is less common in small independent practices.

The ambulatory blood pressure cuff is a device introduced as a way to test whether patients with office-based hypertension had an isolated anxiety elevation of their blood pressure because of the physician’s “white coat” or an ongoing problem that needed to be addressed. The monitor itself is a routine blood pressure cuff with a computer device and timed inflation and deflation mechanism. It was designed to take six blood pressure readings per hour while you were awake and four readings per hour during the night.

Patients are asked to bathe and groom themselves prior to arriving for an appointment and we then placed the cuff on their arm and activated the device. They returned it the next morning and we connected the recording chip to our computer. We received multiple readings per hour and the machine calculated average blood pressure readings, made graphs and answered the question of what type of blood pressure elevation we had seen in our office.

We have performed hundreds of these procedures on patients and it is extremely rare to see a report of a sustained or average elevation of the systolic or diastolic blood pressure in a range that requires the use of medication. We only use the ambulatory monitor on patients who took their blood pressures at home and said it was normal but always had a dramatic elevation while in the doctor’s office.

I was entirely surprised to read the article in Circulation which looked at employees of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Columbia who had ambulatory blood pressures compared with “clinic” blood pressures. 893 individuals wore the ambulatory monitor and were compared to 942 who had clinic blood pressures taken. These were all young healthy individuals with none taking blood pressure treatments.

They found that the ambulatory monitor readings were higher (average 123/77) compared to clinic readings which averaged 116/ 75. The average BP was 10 mm higher in young healthy adults with a normal body mass index. This elevated ambulatory blood pressure was found to be most pronounced in young healthy individuals with the difference being less apparent with increasing age.

While the result was surprising it still supports the use of the machine in our older population of individuals who come in with a story of elevated blood pressures in the doctor’s office but normal blood pressures at home. We will continue to use the machine for just that purpose.

International Panel Questions the Wisdom of Strict Sodium Guidelines

A technical paper published in the online version of the European Heart Journal suggested that individuals should strive to keep their sodium intake to less than 5 grams per day. This is in marked contrast to the recommendations of the American Heart Association of 1.5 grams per day and American College of Cardiology recommendations of 2.3 grams per day. The authors of the papers included some of the world’s experts on the topic of hypertension including Giuseppe Mancia, MD, Suzanne Oparil, MD and Paul Whelton, MD.  They agreed that consuming more than five grams per day was associated with an increased cardiovascular risk. They believe there is no firm evidence that lowering the sodium intake to below 2.3 or 1.5 grams per day reduces cardiovascular disease without putting you at risk of developing other health issues from having too little sodium.

The report triggered a firestorm of controversy in the hypertension and cardiovascular field with proponents on each side of the issue. Both sides agreed that we need more meticulous research to determine the best lower end of daily sodium intake because current information makes recommending one level or another a guess at best with little data to back you up. That leaves clinicians and patients scrambling for clarity and the media reporting this paper in a manner threatening to further erode the public’s confidence in the scientific method and physicians in general.

As a practicing physician I will continue to recommend a common sense approach to salt intake. Those patients who have a history of congestive heart failure or hypertension which is volume related will still be encouraged to read the sodium content of the foods they are purchasing and try to avoid cooking with or adding sodium chloride to their food at the table. This will be especially important for patients with cardiomyopathies and kidney disease who are following their daily weights closely. For the rest of my patient population I will ask them to use salt judiciously and in moderation only. I will suggest not adding salt at the table and if they do to please add it in moderation. I will allow more salt intake in those patients who work outside all day and are exposed to our high temperatures and humidity.

Like everyone else, I will wait for the meticulous research studies to be performed over time to determine how low and high our sodium chloride consumption should be without hurting ourselves.

Flu Activity at Its Local Height. Flu Shot Effectiveness Set at 48%.

The most recent epidemiologic data from the Center for Disease Control states that this year’s flu shots reduced a patients chance of catching the flu by 48% compared to no vaccine at all. The party line is that those individuals who were vaccinated and still contract Influenza A or B get a milder version. In this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Brandon Flannery, PhD, of the CDC and associates believe the flu vaccine is about 43% effective against influenza A and 73% versus Influenza B. Most flu infections this season have been caused by Influenza A (H3N2). This particular virus has the ability to change its genetic composition frequently thus making updates to vaccines necessary more frequently than current manufacturing methods can accommodate.

We are heading into the peak weeks of Influenza A infection in Palm Beach County, Florida. Individuals with flu and upper respiratory tract infection type symptoms should see their doctor. An Influenza Nasal swab test can determine if you have the flu. It takes about fifteen minutes to learn the test result after obtaining a nasal swab. If you have the flu we can place you on a dose of Tamiflu to cut the duration and symptom spectrum of the infection. We can also recommend a ten day course for family members and intimate partners as an effective prevention against the disease. Call the office if you have any questions.

Hospitalized Seniors Say No One Coordinates Their Care

Anthem Healthcare had a survey conducted of over 1,000 senior citizens older than 65 years of age in the hospital between September 26 and October 13, 2016. This Harris Poll found that 85% of the participants had a real medical issue. The poll also indicated:

Sixty-four (64%) percent said they had at least three different health care providers (at one time these were called doctors.)

  • Sixty-nine (69%) percent rely on a family member or themselves to organize and coordinate their care.
  • Sixty-four percent (64%) of those recently hospitalized said no one helped coordinate their care after their hospital discharge for months at a time.
  • Less than half of those surveyed (<50%) said that they were asked about medications or treatments provided by other physicians that might impact their current care. With no one checking drugs and drug interactions this raises major safety issues.

The findings are not surprising to me and reinforce why I limited my practice size and leave sufficient time to learn about who else is caring for my patients and what, and why, they are recommending their specific care plan. It requires reviewing medication lists painstakingly including accessing pharmaceutical data bases and asking patients and their caregivers to bring all their medications and supplements to the office in their original pill bottles. For instance, you can’t tell how much potentially dangerous fat soluble vitamins your patients are ingesting without reading the labels. You need to run the drug-drug interaction software to insure that medicine combinations are not making your patient ill

It’s important to know who else is providing care to this patient and why. As their primary care physician, you need to ask patients to request old medical records and request a consult summary from their other doctors.   You then need to invest the time necessary to review these documents.  It’s a two-way street; providing your patients’ other physicians with your office notes as well as lab and test results. Sometimes a phone call to another doctor is necessary to clarify treatment recommendations and to then assist and educate your patient concerning the reasoning and goals of the treatments.

Often, family conferences in person or by phone are needed to inform caring relatives about what support and assistance the patient requires and how they can be of help. It takes time listening to your patients’ concerns, advocating on their behalf and preventing well-meaning treatment from others from causing harm because they are unaware of the patient’s medication or problem list.

In today’s world, concierge and direct pay primary care practices are providing these services while polls sponsored by mega-health entities confirm those organizations are falling far short in doing so!

New Common Cold, Alzheimer’s and Influenza Vaccines on the Horizon

On a regular basis I see patients miserable with symptoms from a viral upper respiratory tract infection or common cold. They run fevers, are chilled, ache all over, have painful burning throats, runny noses, sinus congestion and just feel miserable. Our therapeutic options include only rest, warm fluids, throat lozenges, cough medicines and aspirin type medications. Antibiotics do not work against viral illnesses.

Researchers at Emory University have developed a vaccine for the common cold. It contains 50- 100 of inactivated Rhinoviruses. Rhinoviruses cause 60-80% of our common colds. Rhinovirus is the most common pathogen exacerbating infections in patients with asthma and emphysema.

The initial work on this vaccine began 60 years ago but the sheer number of different Rhinoviruses, coupled with the limited technology of that time period, prevented progress. With today’s technology researchers have been able to administer 50 or more inactivated Rhinovirus variants to mice and monkeys producing neutralizing antibodies and preventing these infections. Human trials are scheduled to begin shortly with the expectation that a vaccine may be available in two years. The initial recipients will be high risk patients with COPD and asthma but all others will be able to receive the vaccine as well. They believe the immunity will last for two years and then a booster will be required.

There is a new vaccine for influenza prevention in adults 65 years or older being produced which will cover all four of the common viral influenza variants. Currently Fluzone is the senior high dose vaccine recommended to prevent the three most common A viruses. There is a B1 virus seen in the spring that is not in that product. Younger adults receive a Quadrivalent flu vaccine that includes the B1 virus. Within the last four weeks Flublok has been approved by the FDA and released as a high dose vaccine which contains the three A viruses in inactivated form plus the B virus. It will be the vaccine of choice in the 2017 fall flu season. This new vaccine was produced with new DNA technology which allows it to be egg free and received by individuals allergic to egg products. Most other vaccines are grown in egg cultures and individuals with egg sensitivity cannot receive them.

Researchers in the United States and Australia have developed a vaccine to prevent and treat early and late Alzheimer’s disease. It targets the proteins found in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease in the early and late stages. The vaccine has met with success in early animal studies and is beginning formal Phase I studies this winter. They believe this vaccine can reverse some of the symptoms seen with the disease. While the early results are encouraging, this product is a minimum of seven to eight years from being available as a commercial product.

Need To Expand the Recommendations for Screening for Lung Cancer in Former Smokers

In 1976 when I began my internship in internal medicine almost all cigarette smokers 35 years of age or older received an annual chest x ray to screen for lung cancer. In the 1990’s as managed care and insurers’ stopped paying for these screenings, we were told by the experts that the cost of saving one life by looking at every smoker was not cost effective. Insurance companies stopped paying for these films at the same time that medical advisory boards insisted on clinicians sending their chest x-rays out to be read by radiologists, adding extra costs to each film.

The practice of routine screening virtually disappeared. With it came a large increase in the number of smoking related deaths from lung cancer. It took the “experts” almost two decades to realize the errors of their decision.

In 2014 the US Preventive Services Task Force endorsed performing low dose computed tomography (CT Scans) in patients who were a high risk for lung cancer. This group was defined as individuals aged 55 to 80 years who had smoked at least 30 pack years (computed as number of packages of cigarettes smoked per day times the years the individual smoked) in individuals who continued to smoke or had quit within the last 15 years. The data to back up this recommendation came from Ping Yang, MD, PhD and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic. Their research and the new recommendations have helped reduce lung cancer deaths by 20%.

Since these recommendations were instituted, Dr. Yang and colleagues have continued to evaluate the guidelines. They found that individuals who quit smoking 15 -30 years ago are being diagnosed with lung cancer at a rate of 12-17 % of the newly diagnosed cases. They consequently are now recommending that we screen all adults 55- 80 with a 30 pack year history even if they quit more than 15 years ago.

The US Preventive Services Task Force which produces the recommendations that insurers consider has not yet endorsed this suggestion. In our practice we will be recommending low dose CT lung scanning annually on all our smokers who meet the Mayo Clinic criteria. If you, as my patient, fall into that group and have not been getting annual low dose CT Scanning of the lung for lung cancer detection please let us know so that we may set up a surveillance program. We understand the increased cost and ionizing radiation exposure that CT Scans involve but Dr Wang’s research suggests that the benefits outweigh the costs and risks.

End of Life Decisions Are Tougher Than We Think

As an internist and geriatrician I deal with elderly patients all the time. We always end up talking about end of life issues such as “Should I be resuscitated if my heart stops and I stop breathing?”. “Do I want a feeding tube or gastrostomy tube if I stop eating and require nutrition?” “Should I be kept alive on machines and for how long if there is no reasonable hope of recovery?” “When should we refuse tests for diagnosis and subsequent treatments due to frailty, age and quality of life.” These are all immensely difficult decisions for patients and their loved ones. We have documents available such as living wills and medical directives and we appoint health care surrogates to carry out our wishes when we cannot direct care ourselves due to health reasons. Despite this, disagreement often happens between family members and loved ones when the time comes to institute the plans outlined by the incapacitated patient. There are different interpretations of “living”, “terminal condition”, “life prolonging treatment”, etc. Is having a heartbeat and a spontaneous respiration truly living if you cannot eat by mouth, walk to the bathroom, recognize your loved one?

I faced these decisions as a caregiver and co-healthcare surrogate earlier this year and, despite being a professional, felt the decision making was extraordinarily painful and difficult. I share decision making with my brother who lives out of state but will hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to help out. He is an extraordinary son to my chronically ill mom. Widowed a few years back, and suffering from severe and chronic lower extremity issues, she became wheel chair bound and incontinent in the last year. Mom has been living in a highly rated senior facility with its own on-site medical staff in a complex supported by a religious philanthropic organization. Her doctor is a “fellowship trained geriatrician” from an Ivy League institution supported by a team of nurse practitioners. For this reason I decided to interact strictly as her son, not her doctor. Since dad passed away several years ago, she became withdrawn, angry and stopped participating in facility functions. The care team brought in psychiatrists who prescribed medications that left her calmer but clearly hallucinating frequently.

With isolation came increasing cognitive dysfunction with poor decision making and extremely fuzzy thinking. Four months ago she complained to me about having foot pain. I reported it to the nurse rather than undress her and examine her. The LPN reported it to the nurse practitioner. She was seen by a podiatrist several days later and several hours after that visit a nursing aide called my brother in NYC to ask permission to apply betadine (iodine solution) to an infection on her toes. He granted it. Several weeks later while visiting her I smelled decaying flesh. I noticed that when she moved her feet under her sheets she grimaced. I walked over and lifted the sheets and gasped. I was looking at seven gangrenous toes with a blue cool foot and absent pulses in both feet. No one had told my brother or me that mom had vascular insufficiency with gangrenous feet and toes. I called in the nurse and she called the nurse practitioner. The nurse practitioner had no answer as to why no one had told my brother or me that mom had a serious vascular problem going on for months. We had participated in the monthly team telephone conference calls where we listened to social workers, dietitians and therapists discuss her eating habits, socialization and participation. No one discussed gangrene.

Mom had a living will and a State of Florida DNR form. At best she enjoyed holiday trips to my home for family dinners, reading a book and watching TV. Injuries to her hands from repeated falls had made reading a book difficult. Sensitivity about wearing adult diapers and having an accident while visiting my home or out to a restaurant had made those trips a thing of the past. No one at the facility or care team discussed gangrene, evaluation and care for it or the option of palliative care. The Nurse Practitioner said that they hoped the iodine applied to the toes would stem an infection and the bloodless toes would just fall off.

I had numerous discussions with my brother about asking Hospice to intervene and provide comfort measures only at that point. My thinking was colored by my experiences as a resident at a big city hospital where a man with a gangrenous leg chose not to amputate it for religious reasons. We treated his infection but packed his gangrenous leg in ice so the decaying tissue would not rapidly deteriorate and to reduce the horrible odor. I did not want my mother to become that gentleman dying a horrible death, packed in dry ice while caregivers avoided her room due to the horrible odor.

A kind vascular surgeon in the area with excellent credentials offered to see her and offer an opinion. He said that without a diagnostic angiogram he would recommend an amputation above the knee on one side and below the knee on the other. I could not see amputating two legs. Had mom been rational and competent she would not have wanted that. Hospice seemed like the rational decision but that decision required two health care surrogates to reach agreement. “Steve I called her on the phone yesterday and the nurse brought her the phone. We had a wonderful conversation about your nephew and your kids. She seemed with it.” Grandchildren called her and had rational conversations with her. There was resistance to calling in Hospice within the family and their concerns created seeds of doubt in me. I am not blaming my relatives at all. I never stood up to them and strongly said, “She is infirm, with a miserable quality of life and no hope of improvement and you are all crazy for wanting to intervene.” So she went for an angiogram and they opened up three arteries in the right leg and then two on the left. The vascular doctor recommended amputating the gangrenous toes while the circulation was good and creating a clean margin of tissue receiving blood. That procedure took about an hour and was done right after the angiogram. All looked well when I saw her back in her room and snuck in a forbidden corned beef sandwich and kosher pickle. One week later the pain returned to the left foot. It looked dusky and pale. Noninvasive vascular studies showed the arteries that had been opened were now closed. The vascular surgeon recommended above the knee amputation. During this period of time my brother had made multiple trips back and forth from NYC to visit Nana. Our children had flown in from out of town to rally her and support her. They saw her deterioration. They saw her go from recognizing them to confusing them for our wives and her mother and sister. The decision to call Hospice this time met with no family resistance. Hospice arrived as Hurricane Matthew bore down on this area. We went home to prepare our homes for the storm and mom died during it.

Her death clearly relieved her of suffering with a horrible quality of life. That fact is comforting. Losing a mom is an irreplaceable loss. Should I have been more forceful in demanding palliative care earlier? I am still not sure. I am very comfortable with the effort to restore blood circulation to her feet to relieve pain and suffering. I would make that decision again. Other families and clinicians might not have decided that was the best course of action for their loved ones. I will say I had no guidance or help from her medical care team. I think patients and families need guidance at times like these because the choices are not black and white. There is much grey and much pain and many life experiences and emotion coloring your decisions.

I still sit down with my patient’s families and review the end of life options. We talk more about what “living” actually means to their loved ones. The decisions are never easy.